Section: News

On The Record

David Pepper has been the chair of the Ohio Democratic Party since January 2015. A Cincinnati native, he first won election to the Cincinnati City Council in 2001, and has run for several statewide offices, most recently Ohio attorney general in 2014. He is also an adjunct professor at the University of Cincinnati College of Law, where he teaches election and voting rights law.

How do you respond to the sense of anger and anxiety that seems to be sweeping the minds (and ballots) of young voters?

I talk to young people all the time. I can’t say I’ve heard anger as much as real concern about economics and real frustration that our system isn’t addressing problems like income inequality, the student debt situation. Maybe anger fuels some of the Trump side. To me it feels like less anger and more like frustration and deep concern.

What are your strategies to re-energize and re-engage Ohioans, the majority of whom stayed home during the 2014 midterm election?

We have to take on these issues every day; we have to do it at all levels. It can’t just be during the presidential election years. We have to help people understand there are no “off-year” elections. Every year there are people on the ballot that can make a difference on everything from income inequality, criminal justice, the job market. Another is to make sure that on our side, our candidates really do this for public service, it’s not just some game or they’re looking to help themselves, which is often what politics feels like to people. We also have to have a better infrastructure where we’re talking to voters all the time, not just a couple months before the election.

How do you select eligible candidates for office on the state and local level?

We do a lot of recruiting, a lot of training. Oftentimes people self-select, and we emphasize that we want you here to do a public service. Once they get there, we really need to make sure they’re doing the job well. We’re going to be a little more forceful than we have in the past.

A 2015 Cleveland.com article (“Here’s what David Pepper has been up to since taking over the Ohio Democratic Party,” Jan. 21) reported that you’ve been traveling the state to meet with grassroots activists since you became party chair. Who have you been meeting with, and what have they been saying to you about the upcoming presidential election?

We’ve been having town hall meetings all over the state, and we invited anyone and everyone who had an opinion about how we could do better. It was from all those meetings with all those activists we have a strategic plan we put in place, the 16/18 plan, meaning we have to win in 2016 — when the whole country needs us — and 2018. It’s not good enough to win the presidency; we have to win every year. It was everyone from all parts of the state, rural areas, urban areas, and that initial input has been a critical part of what we’ve been doing.

Many voters are criticizing the “superdelegate,” or “unpledged” delegate system, especially after Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the chair of the Democratic National Committee, said effectively the superdelegate system protects party leadership from grassroots candidates. As a superdelegate, how do you rectify accurately representing Ohioans at the convention and your role as a leader in the Democratic Party?

So what I’ve tried to do is stay neutral. I’ve not committed to either side. My number-one goal has been to work for both candidates and get to know both candidates. I’ve actually not declared, because I didn’t want to get ahead of the people. So my goal has been to wait until pretty close to the convention to wait until it all plays out. As chair, I have the superdelegate position because I represent the party; it’s not personal. The number one goal the party has is to have everyone in Ohio feel like the party was fair to them, however the chips fall. We’ve worked really hard to be neutral. I’ll make a decision based on seeing everything play out. I’ve met both candidates. I think they’re both better candidates because of the primary, and between the two of them they’re nailing the biggest issues that people really care about.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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